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Untold Stories: Washington and His Army Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day
General George Washington wished the British to “restore to a brave and generous people,” the Irish, “their ancient rights and freedoms.”
There are so many inspiring, beautiful stories about the great heroes of American history which are scarcely ever told. One happens on them accidentally—buried in a thick, out-of-print biography, in small print on a museum sign, casually and fleetingly mentioned in an obscure educational video. America cannot return to greatness in the future if we do not truly understand the greatness of our past. That is why I am writing an article series to tell a few of these little-known but moving or illustrative “untold stories” of American greatness.
Other articles in this series have included Mack Robinson, groundbreaking black Olympic athlete and born winner; Abraham Lincoln’s visits with the former slaves at the “contraband camp”; the slave turned Patriot double agent James Armistead Lafayette; unsung heroes from a local museum who remind us we are a nation of heroes; and Union Col. Trimble, who saved black freemen from Confederate enslavers. Today I want to talk about two memorable St. Patrick’s Days during the American Revolution.
Today is St. Patrick’s Day. St. Patrick is one of the most impactful individuals in history, without exaggeration; he not only converted Ireland to Catholic Christianity almost single-handedly (not to mention driving out all the snakes), but this evangelization ensured that Western civilization, both pagan and Christian, would be preserved through Europe’s dark ages and later disseminated to the world again by the “Isle of Saints and Scholars.” And Irishmen have always played and continue to play key roles in America’s history, both for good and ill. From one man, brought to Ireland originally as a slave and later returned to Ireland a bishop and missionary, came a legacy that is still celebrated by millions of people every year.
One under-appreciated aspect of George Washington’s character is the number of Irish aides, generals, servants, and friends he had at a time in American history when those of English descent had a good deal of prejudice against the Irish, particularly the Catholic Irish. These included Washington’s favorite aide, Irish Catholic immigrant John Fitzgerald; Washington’s aide and the man credited with first calling this country the United States of America, Irish Catholic immigrant Stephen Moylan; Irish-born father of the American Navy, John Barry; the peasant-born architect who designed and built the White House at Washington’s express desire, Irish Catholic immigrant James Hoban; and Washington’s key spy/double agent during the war, Irish Presbyterian immigrant Hercules Mulligan.
It is unfortunately true that there was frequent tension between the Germans and the Irish in the Revolutionary Army, the two biggest ethnic groups in the Revolutionary Army aside from those of British descent. Many of the Germans, being natural rule-followers and rule-enforcers, were recruited as a sort of military police; and many of the Irish, with their love of drinking and celebrating and their habit (from being so oppressed in Ireland) of breaking rules, were quite often in trouble with the military police. Not only were the Germans apt to be “rough jailers,” many of them didn’t speak English, which created or exacerbated many misunderstandings.
On one occasion, according to Colonel Allan McLane, Washington got directly involved—and it was on St. Patrick’s Day itself that the fracas occurred. It was during the hard winter at Valley Forge in 1778, when tempers were no doubt already worn thin by the lack of adequate supplies and the harsh weather, and the Germans started the trouble with an insulting gesture.
“”[S]ome of the Pennsylvania Germans made a Paddy and displayed it on Saint Patrick’s Day to the great indignation of the Irish in the camp. [A Paddy is a scarecrow covered with bits of green cloth and a bishop’s mitre—it was a Protestant way of insulting both St. Patrick and Irish Catholics.]
[The Irish] assembled in large bodies under arms, swearing for vengeance against the New England troops saying they had got up [that is, created] the insult. The affair threatened a very serious issue; none of the officers could appease them.
At this, Washington, having ascertained the [claims of] entire innocence [from] the [German] troops rode up to the Irish and kindly and feelingly argued with them, and then requested the Irish to show the offenders and he would see them punished.
They could not designate anyone [specifically]. ‘Well,’ said Washington, with great promptness, ‘I too am a great lover of Saint Patrick’s Day, and must settle the affair by making all the army celebrate the day.’
He therefore ordered extra drink to every man of his command and thus all made merry and were good friends.”
Washington had an undoubted sympathy with the Irish—not just in this one instance, but throughout his life. Many of his most trusted aides and generals were Irish, as mentioned above, and he expressed support for the Irish struggle against the British back in Ireland, as a quest for freedom from British tyranny similar to the Americans’. Washington, too, though he was not a drunkard and was very correct in his manners, was fond of alcohol and parties, and it’s not unlikely he sometimes sympathized a little with the Irish when others, including the Germans, accused them of being too high-spirited.
But that wasn’t the only time Washington singled out St. Patrick’s Day as a holiday for the whole Continental Army to celebrate. Valley Forge’s privations have become famous, but the winter of 1779-1780 at Morristown, New Jersey, was miserable too. “It was the coldest winter every measured up to that time,” O’Dowd says, noting that six-foot snow drifts were “common.” Patriot soldiers were freezing to death, the deadly smallpox reared its ugly head, and food was scarce for the freezing and disease-plagued army. “We were absolutely, literally starved,” Private Joseph Plumb Martin later described Morristown, recalling that four days in a row he had nothing to eat but some bark he gnawed off sticks. Martin remembered men roasting and eating their leather shoes, and even the officers became desperate for food.
“By March, the storms and the snow drifts had not let up or disappeared. Washington sought for a way to keep morale up. He decided to give his entire army a day off, on Saint Patrick’s Day, March 17.” So before St. Patrick’s Day 1780, Washington issued a proclamation, O’Dowd says, for the whole army to celebrate a holiday “held in particular regard by the people of [Ireland].” The proclamation said, “The General directs that all fatigue and working parties cease for to-morrow the SEVENTEENTH instant.” He did warn, however, probably with a prudence born of experience, “that the celebration of the day will not be attended with the least rioting or disorder.”
Washington himself seems to have made his celebration of St. Patrick’s Day last all week. O’Dowd cited the New Jersey Journal from March 15, 1780, to talk about a dinner March 14 hosted by the officers of Col. Jackson’s regiment at Morristown. Washington and some of his staff attended the dinner, where they drank toasts to the freedom fighters back in Ireland who were trying to have a Parliament independent from the British (unfortunately the Irish Parliament was soon to be dissolved) and to “St. Patrick: The Volunteer of Ireland: May the cannons of Ireland bellow until the nation be free.”
Then, the next day, according to the New-York Gazette, the “morning was ushered in with music and the hoisting of colors exhibiting the 13 stripes, the favorite harp and an inscription reading in capitals ‘The Independence of Ireland.’” Washington issued a proclamation March 16, specifically about Ireland and the struggle of the Irish Parliament to combat English oppression:
“The General congratulates the army and the very interesting proceedings of the parliament and the inhabitants of the country which have lately been communicated not only as they appear calculated to remove those heavy and tyrannical oppression[s]. . .but to restore to a brave and generous people their ancient rights and freedoms.”
Washington had a great many Irish troops in his army who would have sincerely appreciated such a proclamation. Light-Horse Harry Lee noted, for instance, that the Pennsylvania battalion known as “The Line of Pennsylvania” could have been called with equal accuracy, the “Line of Ireland”; it was reportedly common practice for the soldiers of that battalion to converse with each other in the Irish language.
Have a wonderful St. Patrick’s Day, and like Washington, drink a toast to “St. Patrick: The Volunteer of Ireland: May the cannons of Ireland bellow until” their nation and our nation again be free from the new woke tyranny besetting us.
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